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The surprise announcement, the day before Christmas Eve, leaves decision up to districts

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Students from throughout Oregon have been learning from home, thanks to the pandemic. On the day before Christmas Eve, Gov. Kate Brown loosened the restrictions on re-opening schools.

Gov. Kate Brown abruptly announced new rules for school re-openings on Wednesday afternoon, making former directives optional and allowing districts to open if they follow safety precautions.

In a letter to health and education agencies, she said "effective Jan. 1, 2021, Oregon's COVID-19 Health Metrics for Returning to In-Person Instruction will become advisory rather than mandatory. Moving forward, the decision to resume in-person instruction must be made locally, district by district school by school."

But the announcement does not mean schoolhouse doors will be thrown open to all students right away. Districts have to plan for students to come back and only a few groups of students will likely be sitting in classrooms for the first months of opening. PMG FILE PHOTO - Gov. Kate Brown

Schools still have to follow safety guidelines, for example, providing 35 square feet of space for each child in classrooms and six feet of social distancing throughout the day. That distancing is challenging on a school bus.

Portland Public Schools said getting teachers, bus drivers and other school employees vaccinated against the coronavirus is key to re-opening.

"We need to have educators and school staff to have access to vaccinations before we re-open," said David Roy, PPS senior director for communications.

The state announced Tuesday, Dec. 22, that school employees will be next up to get vaccinations, following health care workers and staff and residents at nursing homes.

In an effort to tamp down the COVID-19 pandemic, most Oregon schools have been closed since mid-March and students have been learning remotely in their homes. Many parents and students had become increasingly frustrated with the situation and their calls for reopening schools had become more strident as the months wore on.

The situation was complicated by resistance from some teachers unions. Some teachers are at high risk for COVID-19 or have high-risk people in their households and did not want to take chances of being exposed to the virus.

The announcement came as the state has been experiencing record numbers of new cases and deaths in the 10 month long pandemic.

The strict parameters for re-opening schools that had been in place were complicated and changed several times. They also were more stringent in Oregon than most other states.

The Wednesday, Dec. 23, re-opening announcement was made as school districts were out on winter break and few administrators were available for comment.

The announcement said the goal of the new policy is "putting more school districts on track to return students to in-person instruction, especially elementary students, by Feb. 15."

The Oregon Education Association immediately issued a statement slamming Brown's announcement.

"Today's decision by Gov. Brown will only result in an increasingly disparate patchwork of return plans throughout the state's public education system — creating uncertainty in a moment when clarity has never been more crucial," said Oregon Education Association President John Larson in a statement.

Roy said that Portland Public will communicate with the families of its 50,000 students after winter break about how district plans are shaping up for re-opening.

Gresham-Barlow School District Director of Communications and Community Relations, Athena Vadnais, said the district "has been diligently preparing to resume in-person instruction over the last several weeks with the goal of welcoming students back to our school buildings. At the school board's business meeting on January 7, the District will provide an update so that next steps can be discussed."

Like other districts, Portland and Gresham have allowed a few students to come into buildings for special testing and evaluations and allowed high school athletes to do fitness training outdoors. Child care services have been operating.

Districts have discussed various groups of students that they would prioritize to come back to school first when it is allowed. The youngest students are usually at the top of the list. Students who speak a language other than English and special education students are also mentioned as among the first students likely to return to classrooms.

The teacher's union also denounced the timing of the announcement and accused government of "continually moving the goalposts in our fight" against COVID-19.

"Governor Brown's decision to make this announcement in the middle of the holiday season means that the nearly 70,000 educators employed in Oregon's K-12 public schools and the families of the more than 580,000 students who are educated in them will now spend their holidays trying to understand what these changes mean for their lives and their livelihoods," the OEA said.

Gov. Brown said that state and federal funds going to schools to pay for safety equipment and other costs make the re-opening possible.

She also said the state will work with schools to "provide on-site, rapid testing."

Brown urged Oregonians to continue to follow safety protocols such as wearing masks and avoiding big gatherings.

She said: "It is clear that the greatest gift we can give to Oregon's children this holiday season is to redouble our efforts to act responsibly and reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Our students' learning, resilience, and future well-being depend on all of us."

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